Logan: sad, beautiful and final

Film

James Mangold is a compelling director; in that a lot of his work has real emotional depth and nuance, and often benefits from repeat viewing. And he’s kind of underappreciated. I mean, Girl, Interrupted, 3:10 To Yuma and Walk The Line all had him at the helm.

And yes, granted, he’s also got The Wolverine on his filmography, but we’re all allowed a little stumble now and then, right?

And I have to say, with Logan – almost certainly Hugh Jackman and Patrick Stewart’s last portrayal of the characters – Mangold has finished with superheroes on a high (assuming he’s not coming back to direct again). Because, simply put, this film is poles apart from almost ALL superhero movies (even Deadpool), in that it’s a melancholy love letter to Logan, aka Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) and Charles Xavier, aka Professor X (Patrick Stewart), as the two that are heart and soul – and indeed spine – of the X-Men franchise.

Theirs is the father-son dynamic that’s touched on consistently throughout prior films, but is really brought front and centre here. And, structure wise, we’re in somewhat different territory. Because whilst superhero films (these days) are often Westerns half in disguise, Logan wears this badge proudly, with Mangold really playing to his strengths as a director.

In that it’s a muscular, visceral, downtrodden and wistful story. One that’s gritty, painfully real, and lacks any semblance of a Hollywood shine. (I mean, within one scene more F bombs get dropped than the rest of the franchise put together.)

Indeed, Mangold has previously stated his touchpoints were Shane, The Cowboys, Paper Moon, Little Miss Sunshine and The Wrestler. And, for me, the latter two cited really shine through. Whether it’s the road trip structure or the fact Logan shares a lot of common ground with Mickey Rourke’s wrestler, in that he’s a ‘broken down old piece of meat’, you sense these influences keenly.

And, story wise, it also takes its cues from the Old Man Logan series of graphic novels. So within the opening scenes where we meet Logan, he’s a grey-haired, shabby limo driver. He drinks, he’s bleary-eyed, bent, broken and walks with a limp. So he’s oceans away from his body being the temple of earlier films. Now it’s more a urinal. In short, he’s a right mess and borderline suicidal.

Plus the fact he’s got a half-senile Charles to look after; shacked up in a metal bunker in Mexico (described in one scene as a man with the world’s most dangerous brain and a degenerative brain disorder to match. A lethal combination). So gone are the days of the mansion and gone are the days of mutants and the X-Men. Logan and Charles are practically all that’s left. And they’re barely clinging to life as it is.

But… they’re given purpose by the arrival of a young girl, Laura (Dafne Keen), who has certain familiar abilities. And so Logan is tasked – with Charles in tow – to attempt to evade bad guys and get her to the safety of Canada. So we end up with a sort of mismatched family road movie – with Logan as the cantankerous yet caring father, Charles as the doddering yet insightful grandfather, and Laura as the wild, precocious daughter looking for a family and sense of belonging.

And, whilst the whole film has many sweet notes, it’s also immensely sad and surprisingly violent (every Wolverine kill is far bloodier and more gory than ever before).

This is also, without a shadow of a doubt, both Jackman and Stewart’s best performances as these characters. The studio has clearly given Mangold license to do things a bit differently, and it’s really paid off.

The world feels more real. It’s the most emotional ‘superhero’ film yet (in any franchise) and it’s focused in its use of a handful of characters tops, which is really refreshing (the swollen cast of recent X-Men outings was beginning to bore me a bit).

So ultimately, this is a strong contender for the best X-Men movie to date, or at least a firm second place. And you could argue that without all the prior films the weight of emotion wouldn’t ring true here, and that this movie needs to stand fully alone to be considered the best. And that’s valid.

But it’s also worth noting that this movie does FAR more right than it does wrong. Coupled with the fact that more than a handful of scenes are truly heartbreaking.

Now how many X-Men films could you say that about?

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice review

Film

Zap! Crash! Whack! That’s how the old Batman TV show went. And, in 2016, you could say nothing much has changed. At least near the end of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice… but I’m getting ahead of myself.

For those not in the know, this film is a continuation of DC Comics’ universe – in terms of picking up the story following events in Man of Steel in 2013 – where Superman (Henry Cavill) tore Metropolis to pieces fighting General Zod (Michael Shannon). Buildings collapsed and people died, including many of Bruce Wayne’s (Ben Affleck) employees; giving him as good a reason as any to hate Superman, seeing him as an alien who operates without limits or accountability and is capable of wiping out the human race.

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On the flipside, Superman/Clark Kent sees Batman as a dangerous vigilante, as bad and morally corruptible as the criminals he puts away. Add to this a young Lex Luthor (Jessie Eisenberg) stirring up trouble, giving us as many twitches and mad tics as he can muster, and you’ve got an interesting recipe for a compelling plot.

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And plot, in a way, is a daunting place to start, because writers David S. Goyer and Chris Terrio are essentially attempting to tell two and a half, or perhaps three and a half stories in one go. We have: Batman, Superman, Lex Luthor, and Wonderwoman (Gal Gadot), the latter who pops up briefly here and there pursuing her own mysterious motives.

They do, however, do a reasonable job of weaving it all together, but it’s a lot of jumping around and I bet the filmmakers were ruthless in the edit room.

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But that’s all I’ll say plot wise, as it’s best you go see it and see what you think. For me, a slightly simpler story would have nice. That said, if you’ve seen any of the trailers there won’t be too many surprises as most of Wonderwoman’s best bits are there, as are Lex Luthor’s – and you can pretty easily work out where the whole thing will end up.

Complicated plot but simple story. (Not sure I’m making sense but I’m sticking with it. Bit like the film, wahey!)

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What I will say is that the first two thirds are the most interesting. There’s a lot of stuff about whether Superman is a false God or not, and about Batman wanting him to face the consequences of his actions. And with montages of TV talk shows discussing Superman’s place in the world weaved throughout early on, it feels like sections have been lifted straight from Alan Moore’s Watchmen a la Dr Manhattan. Which is no bad thing, if done in a fresh way.

Director Zack Synder also manages to nail the tone fairly well. Gritty and dark, but not completely Christopher Nolan. And some of his stylised shots of Superman hovering over buildings or being touched by many hands in a crowd are really quite sublime. As is his (and Affleck’s) take on Batman. Affleck keeps him stoic and resolute for the most part but conflicted (as all good antiheroes should be), which balances nicely with a quirky, technology-savvy Alfred (something we’ve not seen), played superbly by Jeremy Irons (who knew he had such a touch for comedy).

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The bits where I feel this film falters is more to do with DC’s attempt to follow the Marvel blueprint, particularly with a smashy smashy bad guy final third. I felt it was all going quite well up to that point, but it’s then as if the filmmakers couldn’t resist splurging their budget on some fancy effects to please 14-year old boys. But then, some would argue that director Zack Synder is a bit of a teenage boy at heart anyway, so no big surprise.

Similarly, whilst Synder got the tone more or less right, I think Hans Zimmer let him down a bit on the score, which just felt too overblown and portentous. It all got a bit too much as it went on, droning and banging away with lashings of doom and gloom. But we’ve all seen 300, so what did I expect? Perhaps I just prefer the light-hearted Marvel banter. (Now there’s a thing.)

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And another point upon which to focus on the Marvel versus DC front… it’s quite amusing to watch the way they set up their forthcoming Justice League movie, leaving subtlety very much on the cutting room floor. We get a small shot of Jason Mamoa’s Aquaman and a brief scene between Bruce Wayne and Wonderwoman (despite the fact we don’t even learn her name during the film) and it all feels a little bit tacked-on-at-the-end-before-we-forget. I’d have liked to see a lot more delicate threads and strands of a larger world weaved throughout – unless it was there and so subtle I missed it?

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So whilst this may sound like a big rant, it’s really not at all. It’s quite a good film for the most part and there’s a lot to like. But – here’s the rub – there are still many things that happen which we’ve seen time and again in the last decade of superhero flicks. C’mon DC, be bold, be brave. Change up the format, don’t just copy Marvel.

After all, taking a risk and a leap of faith is what superheroes do.

(Ps I’m still very keen to see Suicide Squad as it may bring something fresh. At the very least an unhinged Margot Robbie should be worth the price of admission alone.)

The Leftovers: season two review

TV

Where does one begin with The Leftovers? It’s safe to say it’s like no other show out there. For sure, it has shades of other shows, mostly drama. But there’s a lot in there, and a lot that’ll go over your head (it did mine).

It’s also maddeningly infuriating too. As viewers and consumers and fans and critics we’re used to knowing everything these days. Instant gratification. The Leftovers takes that away from us. It puts us in the same boat as the characters, utterly lost and confused. And you sort of love it for that.

Assuming you’ve seen season one (it would take too long to explain, see here), season two picks up with the Garvey family (well, Kevin, Jill, Nora and a random baby) moving to Jarden, a town in Texas which has seemingly been spared the apocalypse while the rest of the world has not.

As well as being a tourist attraction the town is also closely guarded – after all, they can’t just let anyone in. This expands the world of The Leftovers and gives us an insight into other communities and how they’ve dealt – or failed to deal – with what happened; as the people of Jarden aren’t as ‘spared’ as the Garvey family first think. Furthermore, fleeing to this place won’t solve all of Kevin’s problems – he still suffers from guilt and is plagued by suicidal thoughts and visions which worsen as this season progresses.

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Other characters get a few scenes to keep things varied, but most are largely sidelined (Jill and Nora, prime suspects). So this season, it’s really all about Kevin. How does he adjust to Jarden? How does he deal with his guilt and depression? How does he connect with those closest to him?

With this show (based on a book by Tom Perotta), screenwriter Damon Lindelof has crafted something incredibly poignant, nuanced and painfully flawed. It takes a long, hard look at death, loss, grief, faith, religion, zealotry, persecution, belief – and a heck of a lot more. It poses more questions than it answers and, as a viewer, you’re often at pains to see where, if anywhere, the story is heading. Yet that’s its strength.

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And it has matured drastically between seasons one and two, shifting locations, adding characters, expanding the world and so on. Currently HBO are pondering whether it deserves a third season. Like many, I’m torn (almost every reaction I have to do with this show). On the one hand, like many fans, I crave a third season, one which might provide some answers, or at least some glimpse of where it’s going. But then, the show’s not about answers and story arc, not really. It bucks convention.

In some ways ending where it does would be sort of perfect. It’s dramatic, narratively satisfying and poetically beautiful. And I bet most shows would give a lot to be able to say the same thing after two seasons. Golden age of television, indeed.

Avengers: Age of Ultron review

Film

And so, Marvel’s quest for domination of box office dollars and moviegoer’s time continues. This may sound like I’m starting cynical but I’d like to point out I’m a fan and did enjoy Avengers: Age of Ultron immensely. But… I am starting to feel blockbuster burnout.

First though, the good stuff.

It’s great to have another Avengers movie and the gang back together, they’ve got an easy chemistry and work well as a unit. The story kicks off almost immediately with a slow-mo money shot of them attacking a Hydra base – one to get the fanboys screaming. There’s wisecracking all round and Hulk smashing stuff, yay.

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The team are after Loki’s sceptre which carries a great deal of power. Once retrieved, Stark and Banner think they can use it to create artificial intelligence to put in a robot that will protect the earth so the Avengers can effectively retire. With Captain America the strongest opposed to this plan (more on that later) it backfires producing a rather hateful and sociopathic Ultron (voiced with verve and menace by James Spader).

And so the team have a new foe to face, typically one they created themselves – but let’s not get into that. For those that haven’t been living under a rock the past decade you should all know these characters by now – and no time is wasted picking up where they left off in the first film (and indeed all the other individual films they’ve been in).

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Moving things along a bit director Joss Whedon does provide some nice character moments, in particular Scarlett Johansson’s Natasha Romanoff and Mark Ruffalo’s Bruce Banner developing as a couple and Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye showing another side as a family man.

There’s also new characters.

Aaron Taylor-Johnson’s Quicksilver and Elisabeth Olsen’s Scarlet Witch make an intriguing pair – and it’s nice that their loyalties are torn during the film rather than them being clean cut heroes throughout. In terms of powers (his, speed; hers, telekinesis and mind control) they’re brought to life effectively, although hers does mean that we veer pretty closely to X-Men territory. (There’s lots of crossover in the comic book world but on the silver screen I’m not sure I’d like the Avengers and X-Men to meet/fight/team up really, but that’s another discussion.)

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Where this film falls over a little is down to the fact we’ve seen it all before. And before. And before. The film’s final third is yet another battle in the skies, which now seems to happen in every Marvel film. Also, even though we do want to see the team smash bad guys to bits it doesn’t feel like there’s ever much at stake. Maybe I’m starting to care less about the characters, or maybe I know that they’ll never kill off any of the major ones, but it just makes it all seem a little too… safe and pedestrian. Which is ridiculous given all the explosions and fights and whatnot.

Also, it never seems to take that much effort to outwit the bad guy. Well, mental effort. Physical effort the team have aplenty. Making a clumsy comparison to The Dark Knight for a second, the Joker laughs at Batman as he pounds him saying he has nothing to threaten him with. It feels like that here. Other than brute force to solve problems it never feels like the Avengers have any other way of doing things. Is avenging just different ways of punching someone? Maybe their enemies will get more complex in the future, who knows. The teaser (spoiler, ish) at the end of the film suggests Marvel are drawing all the strands of their portfolio together, perhaps for forthcoming Civil War where we see the differences of opinion of Captain America and Tony Stark (on how to protect the masses) come to a head in a monumental scrap.

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Back to Age of Ultron though. Despite what I’ve just said, all in all it’s a lot of fun. There’s lots of meat for the geeks and comic book fans to chow down on, we get a bit more character development and a lot more smashy smashy bad guys but – and it’s a big but – are we reaching saturation point? Are audiences getting tired of these characters? I am a little. Still love them, but I’m getting a little jaded.

Maybe less smashy more talky is the order of the day. There’s a section in Age of Ultron where Scarlet Witch pretty much floors the team with her mind control skills. That was intriguing. More of that please. Same goes for Paul Bettany’s The Vision – another nice addition, and a more thoughtful one to boot. Perhaps my ponderings are immaterial as, from the film’s final scenes, it looks like they’re trying to move the world onto other characters, which is good. I love the old gang as much as the next fanboy, but maybe it’s time to call time on them?

Anyway… I could go on and on but you get the idea. Go watch it and judge for yourself. Do you feel the same way?

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John Wick: Keanu, the middle-aged action hero?

Film

The golden rule of movies is: do what you like to people but, whatever you do, don’t hurt any animals. Well that goes out the window in this latest action tale of revenge starring Keanu Reeves as legendary retired hitman John Wick. Near the start of the movie he has a run-in with a hapless Russian mobster (Alfie Allen, here getting almost as much abuse as he does in Game of Thrones) who gets revenge by stealing his car and (very slight spoiler alert) killing his dog. This makes John mad, very mad indeed.

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Directed by Chad Stahelski and David Leitch – both of whom worked as second unit directors and stunt coordinators on The Matrix franchise – you get a real sense of visceral excitement in the fight and gunplay scenes, of which there are many. With a script by Derek Kolstad they do a good job of world building too, as Wick gets drawn back into the shady environs of the hitman there are lots of nice touches: characters use gold coins as currency; they all hang out at the Continental Hotel, which has strict rules about not doing business on its grounds; and the underworld is more or less helmed by a sort of godfather type figure (played superbly by Ian McShane, who else?).

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Apparently, the script was written for a guy in his mid ’60s; but I guess Liam Neeson and Denzel Washington were busy so they turned to Keanu. It’s good they did too as he’s a great fit for a retired assassin, world weary but not too much so (he’s 50 in real life, so has a good decade on Neeson and co.), but he’s nimble enough to cut it in the fight scenes. In fact, as is the way with these things, the film (so far) has done well critically and commercially, so it would be a huge surprise if we don’t see John Wick 2 in a few years’ time.

At the cinema I was thinking this would make a good companion piece to The Raid 2. Both are dominated by three or four action set pieces, both hang a loose plot over the whole thing, but get away with it due to their execution and delivery. But where The Raid maybe takes itself a little seriously and has a lead actor that is fairly new to the game, Keanu is a relatively old hand. And whilst he’s known for playing fairly serious characters, John Wick as a film doesn’t take itself too seriously. It’s slightly offbeat and darkly humorous at times. And Keanu with a wry smile underneath the mayhem is actually quite refreshing.

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A lot of the rest of the tone can be attributed to the performance of Swedish actor Michael Nyqvist (best known from The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo trilogy) as the main bad guy, Russian mobster Viggo Tarasov. He brings a sort of unhinged glee to proceedings that sits nicely with dour old John. That said, this is the best Keanu has been in a while. You could sense he was having fun (beneath all the gunfire and killing).

So… A simple tale, told with a bit of flair, job done. Who would have thought this filmmaking game was so easy? File this under ‘Friday night popcorn movie’, sit back and enjoy. Oh, and if all that wasn’t enough for you, it’s also got Willem Defoe in it. An ace in the hole, if ever there was one.

Penny Dreadful: first episode review

TV

timmyModern TV shows, they have to begin with a bang these days. Well, to be fair, old ones did too, yet new ones tend to come with an A-list cast of actors, as well as an acclaimed director and screenwriter.

Penny Dreadful is no exception. The man who put pen to paper, John Logan, is the wordsmith behind this one – in case you didn’t know, a look back through his impressive filmography shows he’s given us Any Given Sunday, Gladiator, The Aviator, Skyfall and many more. Quite a talent. And, if we’re mentioning Bond it won’t escape many of you that this show has two alumni: Timothy Dalton as Sir Malcolm Murray and Eva Green as Vanessa Ives – both inspired bits of casting.

Ever since Hot Fuzz in 2007 Dalton appears to have had a new lease of life and looks to be having an immense amount of fun with each project he now takes on (perhaps the most since his Bond days). As well as a wry smile and a wink he also brings a good dollop of gravitas and sincerity to the part.Episode 101 With only the opening episode to go on it’s fair to say he put in a compelling performance as a man on a quest in the darkest parts of London.

And then there’s Eva Green as Vanessa Ives. Green has spent most of her career playing sultry, sensual, seductive parts. She also suits the occult quite well (she’s been a witch twice), so Ives was a natural fit. There’s intrigue there too, why is she beholden to Sir Malcolm? What debt does she owe him? Where do her witchy powers come from? Or are they religious ones? We see her twice in the episode praying to a crucifix. We also have an actor (Josh Hartnett) who, much like his character jaded gunslinger Ethan Chandler, has lost the love for his profession, having been pretty quiet since 30 Days of Night in 2007.josh1 The story is told largely from his character’s point of view, introducing us to the worlds between worlds.

Harry Treadaway as Victor Frankenstein makes up the rest of the team. Young, articulate, creepy and intense. Treadaway’s performance was, for me, unexpected but eminently watchable, often stealing scenes from the likes of Dalton (no mean feat) and then rounding off the episode with a beautifully monstrous yet touchingly tender scene.

Despite having seen umpteen vampire shows in the last few years, this has a different tone and feels fresh, with the focus on the human characters rather than the supernatural ones (bear in mind it’s not just vampires but they feature in the first episode).ustv-penny-dreadful-s01-e01-4 It’s also beautifully shot.

Some credit has to go to Juan Antonia Bayona, director behind The Orphanage and, quite recently, The Impossible for the way he’s portrayed Victorian London. Without knowing the budget for the show he’s given it an expensive look and feel and the sets are thoughtfully designed with nice detail.

So, a promising start. All the pieces are in place and the first episode was sufficiently gripping and well paced. Looking forward to seeing how the season unfolds.

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Homeland season 2: First episode review

TV

nazirWith anticipation I settled down the other night to watch the first episode of season 2 of Homeland. From the first episode of its original season I was an instant fan.

To be honest I was sold on the concept before I even saw the show. It’s clear why, in today’s cut-throat world of US TV where shows get axed before they’ve even had a chance to get going, Homeland got the nod for a second outing, due to its intelligent plot, great cast, strong script, and the fantastic reception it received.

In fact, to go off subject for a second…
The amount of shows in recent times that seem to get built up immensely with a vast marketing campaign – so I subsequently watch and become invested in them – then get canned after one or two seasons is really beginning to annoy me. Some recent examples below:

  • Terra Nova – massive hype around this and it gets cancelled after one series. Poor ratings and expensive production to blame. A shame, as there were some interesting characters developing. Maybe we’ve just seen it all before with Jurassic Park, Avatar etc. I did like one of the lead actors though, Jason O’Mara – reminded me of a young Mel Gibson.
  • The Event – another show that didn’t last long, despite the hype. Perhaps it trod too closely to 24. Or with the constant jumps back and forth in time, it was trying to be Lost. Screenrant summed up its flaws well.
  • Falling Skies – initially I’d heard a rumour it had been axed, but a third series has been confirmed. I’m pleased. It’s got some good characters and the story moves along at a decent rate to keep you engaged. Plus it’s got Moon Bloodgood – an actress who, if you took away the consonants, her name would be ‘oooooo’. Sorry!

I think shows like Lost changed the scope for what could be accomplished on TV. It raised the stakes and delivered a level of complexity that was perhaps new to audiences. That said, I think it’s also responsible for a lot of shows not getting a chance to play out. Like many others, I enjoyed the first two or three seasons. It then started to get weird, confusing and infuriating, with story strands, characters and teasing suggestions that were never followed up. I stuck with it to the bitter end, only to be greatly disappointed and relatively underwhelmed. I think, as a result, audiences don’t have the patience now. Or maybe they just demand more from their TV shows post-Lost. At least I do!

Anyway, mini rant over. Back to Homeland.
A large part of the success of this show is because it doesn’t pull any punches, it’s gritty and uncompromising – the back story told in flashbacks that fleshes out Brody’s character (the excellent Damien Lewis) is well told, suspenseful, and intriguing.

brodyTV has moved on from 24 and Jack Bauer beating up anyone and everyone in sight. In much the same way that Pierce Brosnan’s James Bond moved on from slick, glossy CGI explosions to give us the raw, visceral and conflicted Daniel Craig.

Homeland shares more with shows like The Wire. Intelligent, complex yet not convoluted, but – most importantly – doesn’t paint a gung-ho, kick-ass picture of America, its politics and foreign policy.

In terms of casting, I was impressed. I’ve been a fan of Damien Lewis since Band of Brothers, which I could endlessly re-watch. For me, Claire Danes (as character Carrie Mathison) was the biggest surprise. I had this memory of her as a relatively unmemorable actress – at least in Romeo & Juliet and Terminator 3 – and she was a revelation, becoming progressively more unhinged as the story revealed itself. Damien Lewis played Brody perfectly. The slightest twitch of his eyes or change in mannerisms kept you constantly second-guessing his intentions.

So, finally, on to season 2, episode 1!
In terms of plot, Carrie, out of hospital having had treatment for bipolar disorder, is tentatively trying to rebuild her life. Brody is moving up the political ladder, from Congressman to possible Vice President. Brody then gets pulled back into Nazir’s world to once again do his bidding. Similarly, Carrie gets pulled back in by the CIA to make contact with one of her old sources that has information on an attack on America.

Brody’s life remains complex. His wife discovers – through their daughter – that Brody is a Muslim and reacts, shall we say, in an unsympathetic way. There is also an interesting relationship that’s begun to develop between Brody and his daughter (Dana) in the latter half of the first season, which has continued. Dana arguably talked him down from blowing himself up at the end of the first season and could be influential in his future decision making, particularly in terms of how Nazir sways him. We’ll have to wait and see.

carrie mathisonCarrie continued where she left off in the first season, unhinged, erratic, but still driven by her job. There is a scene near the end of the first episode of this new season, where she is being chased by an armed man, disarms him and makes her escape, with a wild, manic glint in her eye. She remains an incredibly interesting character – and the one most able to foil any terrorist plot, despite her mental state.

So, there are many reasons to be upbeat about this new season. It hasn’t toned down – or more worryingly overdone anything. Many shows feel the need to make everything bigger and better the next time around. More of the same is in order, as there’s still lots of story to tell. It’s a refreshing show to watch and follow, I’m excited. If you haven’t got involved, get season 1 on DVD, catch up then join us all on season 2. If Homeland is good enough for Barack Obama, then it’s good enough for the rest of us!